Dealing with Rising Mental Health Concerns on Campus

With more than 60% of students reporting mental health issues, college leaders wonder if access to greater funding will be enough to tackle the ongoing mental health crisis at their schools.

By: Tavleen Tarrant
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In early October, the Department of Education (DOE) announced that it would be investing $280 million to grow the number of mental health practitioners in schools across the nation, which includes partnering with higher ed institutions to increase the professional pipeline. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) and the Fiscal Year 2022 Omnibus Appropriations will fund the initiative. The majority of funds are directed to helping students in elementary and secondary schools, but the early treatment of mental health can improve outcomes throughout life. This comes as a welcome reprieve for many colleges, as reports have come to light of worsening student mental health during 2020-21. 

However, will access to greater funding be enough to tackle the ongoing mental health crisis among students? Moreover, what steps can higher education leaders take to address student and faculty mental health issues within schools?

More than 60% of students reported a mental health issue in 2020-21. 

The Need

Aaron Basko is the associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Lynchburg in Virginia. He said that support for students’ mental health is needed more than ever  before.

“If you talk with leaders in student development and student success right now, that is their crisis issue,” he said. 

In a 2022 study on college student mental health published by the Journal of Affective Disorders, more than 60% of students reported a mental health issue in 2020-21. 

“A few years before the pandemic, we started to see a sharp rise in mental health needs. At first, college administrators were shocked when they were seeing 2-3 week wait times for students to get in and see a counselor. The pandemic took everything to a new level, and now it seems like that long wait has become the norm,” Basko continued. 

An earlier 2020 study published in the Journal of American College Health evaluated a mindfulness application for students who were on the waitlist at a college therapy center. However, the results of the study were mixed. Although there were reported benefits for students who used the mindfulness application, the study found that participants would have rather used the application during therapy instead of while they were still on the waitlist. 

Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman is a psychologist and director of student mental health services at Touro University, New York. Dr. Lichtman noted that, although a mental health crisis has been unfolding on college campuses for at least a decade, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this crisis. 

A study published by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2021 found that the COVID-19 pandemic had a persistent, negative impact on the mental health of first-year college students in 2020. The study also stated that “the findings are consistent with those in students who have experienced natural disasters overall.” 

Reactive vs. Proactive

Dr. Lichtman said that most colleges provide some form of “reactive” support. What is less common is the presence of “proactive” support that provides support for long-term solutions to mental health.  

“Most schools will provide various degrees of individual and group counseling for students experiencing mental health difficulty. I believe the key to meaningful change and successful leadership in this area is to provide proactive leadership,” said Dr. Lichtman. 

With regards to his university, Dr. Lichtman said he has tried to focus on proactive initiatives at Touro University such as producing webinars and presentations on topics on dealing with stress from pandemic-related isolation, to relieving test-taking anxiety.

“We have also worked with specific student/program cohorts to provide management of anxiety and other mental health challenges customized to their specific needs,” said Dr. Lichtman. He adds that the university has also been engaging with student leaders in determining proactive measures to address student mental health. 

However, are measures such as webinars, presentations and yoga simply enough to address student mental health concerns? 

Ben Locke is the chief clinical officer at Togetherall, a peer-to-peer, anonymous support online community that is monitored by licensed, clinical mental health practitioners. The Togetherall tool is currently being offered for free to all City University of New York (CUNY) students. Locke said that higher education institutes should implement a “both-and” approach that recognizes the importance of a “basic needs” component of mental health and the specialized treatment component of addressing mental health. 

“The former is characterized by being universally accessible, low cost-per-student, support mechanisms that provide baseline information, self-assessment/education/treatment, meaningful/accessible support services 24/7, and true clinical safeguarding to ensure that those at risk receive the support they need. The latter is characterized by varying levels of traditional mental health services such as triage/referral, case management, crisis support, counseling, psychiatry, etc., for those in need,” said Locke.

Locke said that through colleges investing in licensed mental health practitioners while also investing in low-cost universal tools and applications, universities may be better equipped to deal with rising mental health concerns among students.

However, he stressed that there is no “one-size-fits-all approach” regarding individual universities creating solutions to address mental health issues within their student population. Although proactive leadership when it comes to addressing mental health is important, Locke noted reactive leadership can also be helpful. 

“Reactive leadership decisions in the face of a rare crisis can be counterproductive. On the other hand, reactive leadership can be important for implementing newly emerged initiatives that stakeholders have identified as the next priority. For example, if the stakeholders identify a clearly defined need for improving access to treatment services from 5% of the student body to 10%, then leadership should be appropriately reactive for the purpose of implementing that priority,” said Locke. 

There are not enough treatment services in general, and for those that exist there are long waiting lines.

Future Outlook

Nonetheless, higher education leaders need not only to address and tackle mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, among students but also to address issues that often accompany anxiety and depression, such as insomnia and an increase in substance abuse. In a 2020 study published in the Journal of American College Health, researchers found that students reported a 26.9% increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic. A study published in 2020 for the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs found that out of 1,008 participants aged between 18-35, 30% stated they were engaging in harmful levels of drinking. 

“Folks are struggling in this post-pandemic time. It’s a pandemic within the pandemic,” said Cheryl Brown Merriwether, vice president and executive director of the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE). ICARE is a non-profit that supplies training, certification programs, and continuing education for professional addiction recovery coaches and addiction professionals that will work within workplaces and schools across the country.

She would love to see colleges invest in peer-support services where peer mentors with lived experiences engage with students struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues across college campuses.         

Merriwether said the use of  “peers” is prevalent in substance use programs, veteran services and social services, but would be helpful as well for colleges. 

“By making an investment with intention, peers can support folks in recovery and are valuable in the prevention umbrella, which is where the focus needs to shift,” said Merriwether. 

“There are not enough treatment services in general, and for those that exist there are long waiting lines, and people don’t always have insurance. We must shift from treating to preventing and that is a role that peers can play,” Merriwether stated. 

As conversations arise about how colleges can increase mental health support for students, conversations must also delineate how higher education can support the mental health of faculty members. A 2009 article about helping academics who suffer from mental illness published by Academic Leadership: The Online Journal stated approximately a quarter of university faculty suffers from some form of mental illness. The article stated that administrators should work to reduce work-related stress for academics at their institution. 

According to Basko, the University of Lynchburg has been “reaching out to our staff and faculty with surveys on stress and burnout, and reminding them of the resources that the university offers.” 

The gaps and needs for mental health services for students and faculty members vary between schools, but what is universal is the necessity to provide increased resources along with proactive and reactive support. 

“As a result of the pandemic, many schools have increased those resources, albeit still insufficiently,” Dr. Lichtman concluded. 

DOE Grants

In response to the growing mental health crisis, the DOE is inviting applications for two grants that would help increase mental health services for students: The School-Based Mental Health Services (SBMH) Grant Program and the Mental Health Service Professional (MHSP) Demonstration Grant Program. The SBMH grant provides grants to educational agencies to increase the number of licensed school-based mental health providers, while the MHSP grant provides funding to train school-based mental health practitioners to work in schools around the nation. 

For now, only time will tell if the DOE’s increased funding towards providing mental health services at schools in the United States can help address increased concerns of mental health issues at higher education institutes and mitigate the financial burden for universities to provide such programs at a time when mental health concerns continue to rise. 

Tavleen Tarrant

Tavleen Tarrant

Reporter

Tavleen Tarrant has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University, a Bachelor of Arts and Social Sciences in International Relations from the University of New South Wales and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and International Relations from the University of Queensland. She is a freelance journalist who writes about higher ed, gender, the global economy, migration, labor rights, politics and everything in between.

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